BBC savings ideas? Don't buy me dinner

There are plenty of easy ways the corporation could save money. Plus, the perils of liberty, as illustrated by Eric Pickles's extensions
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The Independent Online

It has not been a good few days for the BBC and its incoming chairman, Lord Hall. First there was the furore over the appearance of "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" on the Radio 1 official chart show and the question of whether snatches of it ought to be allowed to sully the ears of the listening public. Then came the row about John Sweeney's undercover activities in North Korea, trailed by the revelation that the former Times editor, James Harding, is set to trouser a cool £340,000 a year for overseeing the corporation's news output. Meanwhile, the tabloid-enflamed saga of the proper attitude to Baroness Thatcher's obsequies burns on in the background.

It goes without saying that the argument about the BBC "lacking judgement" is most vociferously wheeled out by people who would have trouble judging a bouncing baby contest. But if one could offer some pieces of advice to Lord Hall, as he surveys the various satrapies under his command, the first would be that, in a cash-strapped age, there are some very obvious ways in which he could reduce expenditure. Why, for example, did anyone think it necessary to send a team of motor-sport commentators to China to assist with the polluting of the Beijing skyline? Scrapping Formula 1 coverage would not only save funds, it would also make a welcome environmental and even a moral point, given that the races exist to make money for Bernie Ecclestone in what are often politically unsavoury parts of the world.

Leaving aside motor sport, there are dozens of areas in which the BBC could trim its budgets. Anyone with even the most vestigial connection with its top-line programming will have secrets to spill about the routine waste of resources involved. I once took part in a 1920s-style dinner convened by the producers of the Supersizers franchise. The hire of the West End hotel and the five-course meal, which must have cost several thousand pounds, realised a five-minute segment in a six-hour series.

And then, of course, there is the corporation's pronounced anti-Conservative bias (I write, by the way, as a supporter of the Labour Party). Even on the morning of Baroness Thatcher's funeral David Dimbleby was still hard at work cross-examining the Prime Minister about her "divisiveness" and the £10m-worth of government underwriting – both good questions, but given more than enough airtime in the previous week.

Still, even this was an improvement on the morning after the 1992 general election, when most of the announcers might just as well have been wearing red rosettes.


Predictably, Lady Thatcher's passing, and the recitation of her achievements, has set some of the contradictions of the modern Conservative Party in sharp relief. You sometimes feel that there is only one: a desire to give people freedom countered by a grim awareness of what freedom carries concealed beneath its skirts. Thus most Conservatives, observing Saturday night in the high street of a provincial town, would probably want to stop young people drinking so much. On the other hand, raising the price of alcohol means offending the "responsible drinker", not to mention the brewing industry, with whom the Tories have been in cahoots since the mid-19th century.

In much the same way, it was the Tory politicians of the early 1980s who deregulated the television industry, presided over the founding of Channel 4 and were then roundly appalled by some of the programmes that appeared on it. Just at the moment we are in the midst of a pattern demonstration of this elemental fissure, in the shape of backbench opposition to Mr Pickles's cunning plan to relax the planning laws and enable people to build monster conservatories in their gardens.

This is"Liberty" in action, you see, and a welcome sop to the building industry (another age-old supporter of the Conservative Party) but deeply inimical to the old-style preservationist.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher's first interventions in this arena, we await the arrival of a Conservative who can understand that if you "set the people free" you unleash any number of societal genies that can never be squeezed back into their bottle, and that most attempts to change things for the better merely result in buggering them up.


Back with the BBC, and also the question of political favours, the Radio Times recently received a complaint about Foyle's War, in which Honeysuckle Weeks, as Samantha Stewart, continues to delight the punters. The protest concerned the appearance of a Labour candidate in an historically inaccurate scarlet rosette, this apparently being an era in which the predominant colour was yellow.

As ever, my sympathies were firmly with the producer, on the grounds that any historical drama draws pedants towards it with the zeal of a magnet summoning paper clips. Having once published a novel about Victorian horse-racing, which I took the precaution of having checked by the leading authority in England, I immediately received a string of emails reminding me that there was, in fact, no racecourse at Towcester in 1868, and so on.

As for Labour Party election material, anyone who in the fullness of time sets about making a biopic of Tony Blair had best be very careful. The leaflets promoting the youthful Mr Blair in his first campaign at Sedgefield in 1983 were edged with green – a traditional Labour ruse for getting out the Irish Catholic vote.

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